Friday, August 10, 2012

Karma in Speech

"For many of us, conscious and unconscious lying, intentional deceit, and lies of omission constitute an immense field of delusion and confusion throughout the interpersonal relationships of our daily lives.... The primary harm to yourself of not telling the truth is that after a while you forget that you are lying, and your mind becomes deluded and confused. Telling the truth is really hard: it takes courage and attention."
-- Reb Anderson, Being Upright

Months ago, at SFZC's Young Urban Zen practice group, we discussed the Buddhist principle of telling the complete truth. This is one of several behavioral "precepts" that can be interpreted in many ways. It's not made obvious whether the precepts should be followed precisely or whether they are simply nice ideals to gesture towards every once in a while. I think the best way to approach them is to try them out and see what happens. Ease into them slowly and notice whether you feel better, then step up your effort and see if you feel even better.

It's also possible to follow the precepts fanatically, just on authority, with no understanding whatsoever. You might get some benefit from this experience, but it will be exhausting. The benefit may come from making a big effort, at least superficially, to act constantly for the benefit of everyone. You may discover that altruistic actions are enjoyable and unexpectedly provide some of the happiness you have been seeking, and that will encourage you to keep going. But the experience of forcing yourself to conform to an idealistic standard, rather than finding out how to creatively and compassionately express yourself, will be frustrating.

It's better and easier to go through a process of exploration; understand why the precepts are what they are and how they can help you express your deepest needs. It may not be easy to change your attitude, but in terms of day-to-day effort there is less internal conflict and wasted energy. By understanding what the precepts mean and what your deepest needs are, you can better align your own self-expression with that of reality so that more often than not "the precepts keep themselves," to quote SFZC's founder Shunryu Suzuki.

Being truthful with yourself is a very important part of this process. Being truthful with others is practice for being truthful with yourself. Right there, you can see one way that a precept comes in handy as a tool rather than as a rule.

But many times in this process there are seeming contradictions--there are times when it seems inappropriate to tell the truth because it may be harmful or tactless. To bring up questions from YUZ, what happens if an angry person asks you to help them get revenge? You might lie to protect the other person. What happens if someone asks what you think of them? You might lie to avoid conflict.

If the precepts are thought of as rules, or as steps toward living a happy or enlightened life, then these situations are discouraging. We might think that the precepts have failed us because they have failed to cover every situation, and we might conclude that the practice of Buddhism only works sometimes. Or, we might feel disappointed in ourselves for lying in spite of our noble intention to tell the truth. In either case a deeper understanding of our situation becomes helpful.

Our situation is something like this: throughout life we have occasionally exaggerated a little or misrepresented ourselves in order to impress someone or get a little something extra. Maybe there was the occasional little lie that we justified as a harmless shortcut to get where we thought we were supposed to be going anyway. Superficially, we probably got what we wanted, so we thought we got away with it.

But did we really get off the hook? 

What we don't like to see is how small pieces of misinformation echo back and forth throughout our relationships, leading to chains of actions which necessitate more lying so we can avoid owning up to the original lies, so more actions branch out, and the process amplifies itself.

A great example to consider is that big lie we're engaged in all the time: our identity. Think about how much effort we invest in trying to convince ourselves and others who we "really" are. The original lie, beginning somewhere in forgotten childhood experience, has been echoing and cycling through our actions and relationships ever since. It transforms into new goals and desires but carries along all the emotional baggage. We've been building up vast databases in our heads to dictate how we should react in various situations and around various people in order to convince ourselves that we have an identity that makes us comfortable. These networks of actions, relationships, and ideas are so big that we cannot even begin to fathom how much control they have over our lives. We don't see that dishonest actions we pushed out into the world years ago have reflected back to us and brought about many of our present difficulties.

This "immense field of delusion and confusion" is just one example of the broader phenomenon of karma, and a little understanding of karma can help clarify the role of the precepts in our particular situation.

The concept of karma existed prior to Buddha's teachings. As I understand it (and I could be wrong), it referred to a mechanism of cosmic justice whereby people were punished or rewarded based on their moral actions. Buddha may have adopted karma into his teachings as a "skillful" way of explaining things to people in terms of an idea they already understood. To his wise disciples, the Buddha said that karma is a useful concept in life, but they should not get hung up thinking of it as an absolute reality. For comparison, when you tell someone, "That's the way the cookie crumbles," you don't mean to say that there is a real cookie governing the situation, or that the physical dynamics of a crumbling cookie directly mirror the situation at hand. In the same way, when you say, "That's karma," you're referring to the general tendency for our actions to come back to us, but not to a definite system. I make this point to dispel any philosophical speculation about physical, spiritual, or magical mechanisms of karma.

Karma can be thought of as the web of relationships, actions, and consequences that create the situations we face every day. This web is too complex to describe, so we just call it karma.

The important thing to realize is that we're responsible for our own karma, whether we caused it or not. If it's in our lives for us to deal with, then it's our responsibility. We might blame others, like our parents, for creating the situations that got the ball rolling, but we're the ones who decide whether to keep the ball rolling and make it go faster. By not understanding that even the smallest of our actions shape our future, we've blindly cultivated a very complex and frustrating system of karma for ourselves. Trying to blame it on others makes it worse. It is crucial to accept your karma as your own.

But don't take my word for it. You have to see this at work in your own life so that this becomes real for you. There are many ways to see it for yourself: meditation, therapy, keeping a diary, writing a blog, etc. Look at the ways you cling to pleasure and avoid pain. Look at the consequences of those kinds of actions: lying to avoid conflict creates a situation where you feel obligated to behave falsely and suppress your feelings. Lying to get something you can't get otherwise creates a situation where you have to worry about loss. The big picture, if you pay attention to it, will show that lies cause more problems than they solve.

Once you see that you're responsible for your present situation, then it's possible to begin working on that karma. Working on karma isn't something in your control. If anything, trying to control things is what creates karma. Instead, you have to deal with what comes as it comes without trying to cling or avoid. You have to receive the consequences of your past actions without trying to escape. That, in a sense, closes the loop of cause and effect, which removes knots from the web.

If you've been tying these knots for 20 or 30 years, then it will take a long time to make a dent in them, but it won't take too long to see small but real benefits. By reversing the habit of making things worse, you'll immediately begin to enjoy the trend toward honesty and simplicity in your relationships.

This process requires a lot of forgiveness. You have to forgive other people, rather than blaming them. You have to forgive yourself for past mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. You also have to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you'll continue to make. It will take a while to figure things out, and the road will not be easy. That's because, in a practical sense, your karma is very real. It won't go away the moment you decide you're going to be good. You will actually have to face all the things you've been avoiding. You will actually have to let go of all the things you've held tight. Only action matters.

When you're starting on this path, the precepts are designed to help you stop spinning the web. Beyond that, the precepts are a picture of life when the web has been diminished. Following the precepts becomes natural when you've resolved the habits and misconceptions that motivated you to be dishonest with yourself in the first place. In that sense, we shouldn't assume that we're going to be able to follow the precepts right away without any difficulty. Being able to follow the precepts is actually a privileged experience that comes when you've burned through the karma that otherwise hinders you. Those situations where the precepts seem to break down or conflict are not shortcomings of Buddha's teaching; they are actually consequences of your karma. Our karma may be such that we can't follow the precepts immediately without having to suffer through tough decisions. If we've been avoiding certain kinds of uncomfortable emotions, we're going to have to face them, whether the precepts stand in the way or not.

Sometimes your karma forces you between a rock and a hard place, where there are no pleasant choices. You can accept it, do your best to do the right thing, and let this part of your karma work itself out; or you can try in vain to escape and let this part of your karma go around for another cycle.

The precepts can't save you from existing karma. It's just there. Someone has to deal with this mess. If it falls on you, then maybe it's your opportunity to bear it, move on, and make the world ever so slightly brighter. Sometimes you have the ability to make things better--which is great--but sometimes the best you can do is make the effort to not make things worse. But even that is making things better.

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